Jane Austen dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, as an expression of her appreciation for his compliments and encouragement. It is a romantic comedy of manners that treats the middle-class values of marriage and family and hardly goes beyond the concerns of three or four families of an English country village.
Yet these commonplace themes are presented with such skill and depth to make Emma a popular novel among readers, from its time of publication to today. Its themes are the favorite ones of Jane Austen, the unmarried daughter of an Angelican minister in rural southwest England. Some may say that marriage and family concerns are all that she knew, living her entire life among a large, close family of well-educated, well-read parents; six siblings; and many nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Certainly she accurately describes the small-town values, aspirations, behaviors, and concerns common to her age and social class.
Austen, however, also touches on universal human themes relevant to other times and places. Among these themes are the transition of young adults from parental authority to independence, the managing of conflicts between parents and adult children, the wise choice of marriage partners, and the overcoming of psychological obstacles to realizing love and marital happiness.
Emma centers on the interests and concerns of handsome, clever, and rich Emma Woodhouse, who faces all these issues as she separates from her nurturing governess (a substitute for her long-dead mother), fails to guide a needy friend toward happiness and security, and ultimately opposes her devoted father by choosing to marry rather than remain single in order to care for him. Other characters face difficult trials of love and friendship as well: Harriet Smith chooses her humble husband in spite of her friend and mentor’s strong disapproval; Frank Churchill chooses a destitute wife whom his aunt will never accept; and Jane Fairfax enters a forbidden secret engagement with a capricious young man who refuses to acknowledge their relationship publicly. All these characters face choices of love and loyalty that test their strength of purpose and wisdom.
The story’s point of view allows readers to see events and situations through the eyes of the manipulative but well-meaning Emma. They know that she sometimes feels disappointed in herself and that she suffers guilt for her cruel words and thoughtless actions. They share her sympathetic view of the people of Highbury and so also tend to excuse her conceited and foolish mistakes, hoping that she corrects her self-absorbed views and stops seeking power over those weaker than herself or expecting continual admiration from her friends.
Austen deftly captures the pain and poignancy of these characters’ difficulties in the minor events of the story: a broken boot lace, the emerging message of a parlour word game of anagrams, a love letter hidden and secretly read, a mysterious gift of an expensive piano, a gallant rescue from a band of curious gypsies, an afternoon picnic in the country, a cruel snub at the town ball. In these small events, hearts are revealed and their messages both understood and misunderstood by those most interested. These difficulties are the stuff of tragedy as well as comedy. Austen allows her lovers’ difficulties to be conquered, after they suffer in embarrassing and comic situations.
Readers may ask whether these characters’ romantic successes do, in fact, bring them their expected happiness. This important question is not so easily answered in the novel. In many ways, the major romantic couples are comically mismatched: high-spirited, imaginative Emma with proper, fatherly Mr. Knightley; flighty Frank Churchill with melancholy, delicate Jane Fairfax; hardworking, sensible Robert Martin with vacuous, silly Harriet. Rather than bringing out the best in each other, these partners may bring out the worst, as newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Elton certainly do. Austen grants these couples their heart’s desire, but she may be quietly laughing at them as she does so.